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In San Francisco, gentrification and a boozy culture go hand in hand



In San Francisco the hot topic of the day is gentrification. The city, it is said by some critics, is turning into (or has deliberately been turned into) a haven for wealthy techies from the likes of, Twitter, Zynga and scores of others, forcing out the artists, musicians, Boehemians and others who can’t afford the median apartment rental of nearly $3,400 a month.

The political ramifications are visible on a daily basis. Recently a group of anti-development protesters surrounded a Google bus, in the symbolic heart of the Mission District. Such private buses have become commonplace in the city, with tech companies transporting their commuting workers, thus sparing them from the ordeal of having to use the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (MUNI) beleaguered buses and streetcars (and in the process preventing their dollars from fattening the MUNI’s perennially cash-strapped bottom line).

The anti-development protesters also killed a planned luxury condominium project on the Embarcadero, known as 8 Washington, that had been backed by all the city’s elite, including Mayor Ed Lee and California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. It was a stunning defeat, and a warning shot fired across the city’s bow: The people are fed up with multi-million dollar apartments that 99% of the population can’t afford.

I’ve been watching all this with mixed feelings. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Oakland for 35 years, and while there’s nothing particularly new about gentrification and people who both support and oppose it, what’s happening now is stronger than it’s been in the past. There’s a genuine feeling that San Francisco must remain true to its roots, as a haven for the oppressed and eccentric, the creative poor and the wacky, the whole rainbow spectrum that has made the City by the Bay what it is since the days of the Barbary Coast.

My sympathies, then, are with the protestors. At the same time, there is much about the new techie population to admire. They’ve brought an energy to the city it hasn’t seen in years. Even through the Great Recession, San Francisco saw an explosion of clubs, tasting bars, restaurants, popups, food trucks and saloons, in nearly every neighborhood. The Mission has been transformed from a grimy, dangerous ‘hood to one of the premier destinations in the city, home to exquisitely expensive restaurants (Saison) and bars (Locanda) that burst with excitement and buzz.

The liquid that fuels all this: alcohol. Never has the city had more or better wine shops. Never have restaurants had greater and more interesting wine lists. As soon as workers leave their Financial District offices at 5 p.m., they head to hundreds of bars, celebrating the end of the workday with fancy cocktails, shooters, beers and wines from all over the world. It’s a Golden Age for drinking in San Francisco, and it feels good.

So, like I said, mixed feelings. The money that the techies make lets them live the good life of food and booze. At the same time, rising rents are indeed exiling some of the city’s most creative types. (I see this all the time here in Oakland, where they come seeking more affordable rents. San Francisco’s loss is our gain.) I don’t know what the answer is.

  1. I think you said it best. San Francisco loss is Oakland (the East Bay’s) gain.

    But, Steve, it has been ever thus. Fisherman’s Wharf chased out a perfectly good fishing fleet and closed down the canneries. The Hayes Valley area, now gentrified, was once a place of wealthy folk and has turned out to be again.

    As a fellow East Bay denizen, I love what our area has become. We have the artists, we have the urban winery scene and we do not have SF rents.

  2. Kurt Burris says:

    As a 25 year resident of Sacramento I too appreciate the creative class that cuts their teeth in San Francisco and then moves here when they want to buy a house and raise a family. May not be as exciting as living in the city, but here we have more discretionary income for housing (and wine). And we can afford to visit San Francisco fairly often. It doesn’t help the people being displaced necessarily, but it helps the surrounding communities…

  3. Martin Slavin says:

    My CA experience started with a house in SF. With a child, we moved to Marin. That will happen to the techies in SF. SF schools suck, and that is a fact. I also have a yard and great views, a summer and I am only 30 minutes from Sonoma. My perch in Marin has allowed me to work in St. Helena.

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